The moving van brought our stuff from the warehouse yesterday. Yesterday evening I was so tired I fell asleep on the couch about 9 o’clock. I did not write a story for this blog. I was so tired that I waited until my spouse put the lights out for the evening and then I stumbled from the couch to the bed in the dark so I would not wake up.
This fire and the one year and 362 days since has been hard on all of us.
I found a photo of Sophie and me in front of the Royal (Dick) College of Veterinary Medicine in Edinburgh, Scotland tonight. I don’t now what I was looking for but there it was. I tried to remember when it was and it seemed a very long time ago. When I discovered it was from August 2010 I was pretty surprised. It seemed like it was a lot longer ago than 4 years. Sophie’s snout was still red with no silver. My hair, too, was red. Mostly what caught my attention was the expression on my face. It was carefree. That day, and the two weeks we spent in the mountains in Western Scotland were perfect. Since the fire, I cannot remember feeling that burden-less. I am sure there are days when I feel carefree and unburdoned but I cannot put my finger on them and say, “That was a really good time, wasn’t it?” The taint of the fire is always there in the background.
Since the fire I have worked most days trying to get our life back in order. First there was the part of just surviving, then trying to find some semblance of us among the various places we lived that were furnished by a hotel chain or by someone who we did not know but rented housing from. I know that a standard work year is 2080 hours. I must have spent at least a 700 or 800 hours on the insurance documentation between June 28, 2012 and August 9, 2013 when we officially closed out our case and moved from the insurance company’s temporary housing. I suppose a 1000 hours on house plans, documents, financing, furnishing, designing and meetings about the house is not unrealistic. I don’t know how many hours I have spent in sweat equity on the house. It seems like more than thousands. In short, most days, most weeks, for two years, I have done something in response to how the fire changed our lives.
In that statement, I think, is the key. I have done something in response to how the fire changed our lives.
In one of my books on traumatic stress back in the early days of the field, my definition of stress to traumatic stress was anchored in the change agent. If we chose to change due to a stressor I argued we were still in control, that we were the change agent. In traumatic stress we do not have a choice to change. The stressor demands that we change. How that change takes place has to do with the stressor, the person, the resources available to the person and other biological and social characteristics. For some the change is traumatic. For others the change is profound and may be disturbing but not traumatic. Most people who experience an extremely stressful, potentially traumatic event do not develop serious negative psychological consequences. We are among those who have passed through the event and come out the other side profoundly changed but without the scars of trauma.
Our fire experience was buffered by our resilience. Before the fire we were blessed genetically and with fiscal and social resources to be resilient people. Financially we were so resourced that we had a whole house of things and a house itself that could burn. I am not being ironic about a grim twist of cosmic play; I recognize fully that being able to own a home and have things in it puts us in a small and very privileged percent of the world’s population. As with fiscal resources, we are deeply socially resourced. We have strong ties with family and friends. We had robust ties with our work colleagues. We had health problems but we were resourced there too because we had access to healthcare. Importantly, our shared history spanned from the 1970s until the time of the fire. In short, we were rich.
When we left home on that Thursday afternoon of June 28, 2012 with the Charlotte/Mink Creek Fire racing toward our house, we did not have to wonder where we could sleep that night or have fear in the coming days of not being able to afford housing. Had the insurance company not covered our housing we could have done it ourselves from our own resources. We worried but we did know, insurance or not, we could figure out how to pay off our mortgage if we had to. I calculated that the day after the fire and the day before we knew our house was one of those that burned. I had to know if worst came to worst what our lives would look like. They would have looked rich. Even though we would have probably not been able to build a replacement house we could have found something we could afford.
We did not have to face that concern. When the major claims insurance adjustor came he brought us a copy of our policy since ours burned. He sat with us and walked us through the policy. I remember my stomach doing flip-flops not because we were sitting with an insurance adjustor calmly discussing their actions to pay us for the loss of our house and loss of use of our dwelling and loss of all our worldly possessions. My stomach was flip-flopping because there was so much money.
I was soon to find out that the cost of rebuilding our house back the way it was on the day of the fire was about twice what it would have sold for on the day of the fire. We were resourced because we had replacement value insurance. Some people in our fire had just enough insurance to cover their mortgage or the appraised value of their house. Some people had to rebuild a house half the size of the one that burned down because of the way their insurance was.
We were blessed by the people around us who helped us. As I was unpacking things yesterday I found bits and pieces of the things that people gave to us in those first few months after the fire. I found a red teaspoon that belonged to a set of measuring spoons. I don’t know where the others for the set are but I remember clearly who gave me the spoon. I found a granny square quilt my mom made and gave to a friend before she died. When our house burned her friend sent us the quilt. It is not the same color as the one she made for us but it is from the same hand.
Our things were moved by a small local company. They understood about the fire and the importance of being fully in the house before the 2 year anniversary on Saturday. While it made their lives much more difficult, they tolerated the mess they were moving. Most of the boxes open and the contents had shifted around during our many warehouse treks to find building parts that were mixed with about everything. There were loose bits of clothing that had been exchanged for warmer or cooler ones over the past months without being tucked into another box. I tried to stay ahead with a big marker designating locating but could not always keep up. I had to look in the box and see its contents to know where to send it. Sometimes when I looked in a box I could not recognize what was in it.
I was in the kitchen unpacking and broke something. I stood over it looking hard at the shattered pieces on the floor struggling to remember what it was. My spouse, who was working in another room, called out, “Are you OK?” I replied, “Yes.” to which he responded, “What broke?” All I could say was “I don’t know.”
At the same time I could not tell what I broke, I was unpacking things and putting them away in cabinets just liked we had been absent from home for a bit and for some reason had brought the Waterford crystal with us. I automatically unwrapped it and put it on the shelves right where it belonged. I even lined the sizes of the wine glasses up the way they were “supposed to be” without any sense of discontinuity. When I lifted my head out of the cabinet I knew we were in a different place and a different house and that the crystal did not have the 30 year history of our old collection but it was ours and it had a story.
It was both confusing and comforting to see things coming out of the box that looked like they belonged to us. Since we had not seen them for nearly a year since we put them in storage to move here, it was easy to morph them with things that we have not seen for the past two years since they were burned by the fire. I stopped several times and looked at the cabinet where I was putting our crystal and reminded myself they were acquired items. A couple of months after the fire we started on replacing things. We were not just picking up some essentials but really replacing things. Both of us got somewhat carried away with the Waterford crystal available on ebay. Before the fire we had several hundred pieces collected over 35 years. People gave them to us, we found them in second hand stores and some of them we saved for a whole year to have a single piece. Our collection was never intended to be a collection but was a gift of love. Soon after we were married we began giving each other a piece for our anniversary. We would save for it over the year and together give each other one piece. That is one piece, period. Back then one wine glass was $25, twice our weekly grocery budget. Because each piece had a story, the crystal was important to us. We each bought Waterford and gave it to the other. I found several “odd lots” and even some pieces for one or two dollars each. Most were old and mismatched but that is just right for us. The way our collection grew over the years it was a collection of unique and interesting “mismatched” crystal.
So when I was unpacking the Waterford and putting it into a 24″ pantry cabinet that sat by the wall and looked on the inside just like our old 24″ cabinet that sat by the wall, it was easy to slip into that catatonic “nothing has changed” feeling. Being more psychologically aware I noted often how nice it was to be comforted by putting things “where they belonged” even though I knew they were not the things I had before the fire nor was I in the place I had been before the fire. It felt in a very good way like our life coming back together. The kitchen was not under construction, empty, waiting to be filled and the replacement things we had were not looking like replacement things. Together the replacement things in the replacement kitchen were a home about us.
This replacement home and our replacement things are in fact about us, not a replacement us. The trauma of the fire and its violent demand that we change did not rule over this house. Our love for each other and those around us, and their love for us quenched the fire. It is a fire quenched, not one that never was. The fire’s reshaping of our lives can never be forgotten. We are reshaped but we are reshaped in a way that we recognize ourselves even in the change.